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Parashat Ha’azinu and Yom Kippur 5781

September 25, 2020

Yom Kippur, Shofar, and Freedom
A D’var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu and Yom Kippur
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

Why is it that a holy day which is supposed to be “awesome” has a reputation for many as being “awful?”

The 10 day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as the Days of Awe – a time to reflect upon our lives, let go of the old, and chart an improved life path.

Yet, as we initially reflect upon Yom Kippur, so many of us tend to focus upon the discomfort of fasting. In many ways, fasting is counterintuitive to the way we currently live. We can watch television or access the Internet 24 hours a day. Shopping options are constantly available.

Yet, on Yom Kippur, while every instinct prompts us to open the fridge or cupboard to alleviate our hunger or thirst, we are told to push against that impulse – and to refrain from these, and other pleasures.

Where is the awesome in that?

Our rabbis note that the name Yom HaKippurim – Day of Atonement – is very close in structure to another holiday, Purim. The word Kippur, can be interpreted to mean “like Purim.”

But where is the connection?

Purim in many ways is a Jewish carnival. We indulge in physical excesses. We eat and exchange sweets. We make noise. We dress in costumes. We party and consume items which raise our spirits.

But on Yom Kippur we fast, dress modestly and let go of our physical drives and concerns. Where is the intersection?

It’s all about freedom.

The great medieval theologian, Hai Gaon (939-1038) noted a connection between Yom Kippur and Shenat Ha’Yovel, the Jubilee Year as described in the Torah. The “Year of the Yovel,” the 50th year in the Biblical cycle, was a time when slaves were set free, and land, held as collateral, was returned to its original owner.

The Torah declares, “You shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land, and you shall hallow the fiftieth year…” (Leviticus 25:9, 10)

Hai Gaon wrote that the custom of blowing the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur echoes the blowing of the shofar for Yovel, for on Yom Kippur, the Jewish nation merits release from enslavement to freedom.

What are we being liberated from?

Yom Kippur is a culmination of a period of introspection where we let go of the many earthbound inclinations. We are taught to let go of grudges, to consider how we’ve used the power of speech, to ask forgiveness, to forgive, and so on. Throughout the year, we are weighed down by these forces.

In this world of constant media access, we are surrounded by nonstop stimulation. Often, we are so busy pursuing pleasure, that we turn our backs on our quest for meaning.

The day of Yom Kippur presents an opportunity to atone, to perform teshuvah, minus the trappings of the physical world – and “return” to our natural selves.

Maimonides (1138-1204) explains that the sounding of the shofar during the Yovel on Yom Kippur, mirrored the same notes sounded on Rosh Hashanah. (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:10,11).

So, while in many ways Purim is a celebration of the physical, Yom Kippur is a celebration of the spirit. It is why the name Yom Kippur is similar to Purim, but obviously not the same.

The primary theme is freedom. Purim engages us in joy and physically, and Yom Kippur stimulates us in matters of the soul.

Indeed, this is a case where the two extremes meet. But each calls for the disruption of our ego’s barriers, embracing the truth of who we are.

As Israel’s former chief rabbi Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) noted, “Through the process of teshuva a person is liberated from the shackles entangling him, and his soul is able to reveal itself freely, for teshuva is the desire for Divine freedom, devoid of the least bit of enslavement (Orot HaTeshuva 5:5; 7:4).

As we listen to the shofar blast this Monday evening signifying the end of Yom Kippur, let us embrace our freedom to change. Let us take those things which we have contemplated during the Holidays and put them into action.

The shofar, as referenced in the Torah, is a declaration of freedom. How we act upon that freedom, will determine the quality of our year to come.

Indeed, the sounding of the final shofar blast, reminds us, that in many ways, freedom to improve our lives is up to us.

And that is what makes Yom Kippur, the culmination of the Days of Awe, so awesome.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (2010) serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.